EDGE Spotlight: Sugar Hill & the N'Namdi Art Gallery

Long before Midtown became the focal point for urban revitalization within the City of Detroit, husband and wife team Ernie Zachary and Diane Van Buren, were busy blazing a trail for future redevelopment pioneers. Back in the late 1970s, Ernie and Diane were approached by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, located at the intersection of Woodward and Warren, to find a way to make use of an abandoned building that was quickly falling into disrepair. That project marked the beginning of a long journey to revitalize the property around East Forest and Garfield neighborhood on the eastside of Woodward, and transform it into a living laboratory for the arts community and sustainability.

The Sugar Hill District

Ernie and Diane extensively researched the rebounding neighborhoods’ history when they began their revitalization efforts. They uncovered a rich history for what was affectionately known by the neighborhoods African American old-timers and the musicians who frequented the district robust night life (and tendency to "let the good times roll") as "Sugar Hill". The name was a takeoff on the Sugar Hill district of Harlem in New York City which, because of its large fine homes owned by African Americans after the Harlem Renaissance era, became synonymous with the "good life" for those Americans. Ernie and Diane's vision for the Sugar Hill district combines the rich music and arts influences of the district’s historic past with the current music and arts culture growing in Detroit's Midtown area.

Back in the early and mid 20th century when the district was booming, the area was an entertainment venue for Detroit's African American citizens. It was home to the famous Flame Show Bar, the Pelican Lounge, Sonny Wilson's Mark Twain Hotel and many other African American-owned nightclubs and lounges. Sonny Wilson was widely regarded as the unofficial "Mayor" of Detroit's famous Paradise Valley. The district was also home to several prohibition era "speakeasies," and late night "after-hour" music clubs, and a very robust bohemian arts community. It was common place for touring musicians after their gigs at the Greystone Ballroom or the Varsity, to join an all night "jam session" in a Sugar Hill after-hour joint. On our tour, Ernie and Diane pointed out several discrete rooms complete with fake walls and tunnels that were likely places where bootlegged liquor was stored and distributed.

Today, the neighborhood has several major tenants including the College of Creative Studies (CCS) and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MOCAD). The vision for Sugar Hill is to build out existing developments and create a walkable area with art galleries, retail, restaurants, apartments, and creative space. In addition to the N'Namdi Art Gallery on Forest (which will be covered later), they have renovated an old apartment building (built in 1922) on Garfield behind N'Namdi into both artist loft apartment space and display space for artists and small creative businesses. A new walking path is under construction (paid for by the New Economy Initiative) that connects the N'Namdi Art Gallery and the burgeoning artist colony, and in between is the new home of Seva, a vegetarian restaurant that also has a location in Ann Arbor.

Creative financing and institutional support

Ernie and Diane's story is one of creativity and patience. With few financial resources to transform the property on their own, they have become experts on federal and state redevelopment grants, loans, and incentives. From HUD Section 108 grants to brownfield incentives to federal and state historical designation incentives to the New Economy Initiative, Ernie and Diane have put together the financial pieces to fund their redevelopment efforts. They have also received institutional support from Sue Mosey and the University Cultural Center Association, a collaboration which started in 1976 through a partnership between Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the College of Creative Studies, and the Engineering Society of Detroit.

Preservation meets Sustainability

While it may not be visible from the street level, an overhead and underground view of the Sugar Hill district reveals state of the art energy efficiency and sustainability at work. Above the new artist apartment complex are solar rods that both heat water within the facility and provide electricity to the building. During the day, the building produces more energy than it uses, so they are able to sell energy back to DTE through their SolarCurrents program and reduce both energy costs and consumption for building tenants.

Discretely located next to the building below ground are 27 wells, each 270 feet deep, which make up the building's state of the art geothermal heating and cooling system. Taking advantage of rebates and tax credits for geothermal infrastructure, the system pumps warm air into the ground and brings up cool air (around 52 degrees), providing cool air during the summer and warm air during the winter months. The geothermal system has worked so well that it has reduced natural gas costs to almost nothing for the complex, and on the very warm 90 degree day of our tour, the building remained a cool 70 degrees.

The building also captures storm water through a cistern system, which is used to irrigate plants and vegetation around the building and along the new walking path. Along with high-efficiency lighting and EnergyStar windows and appliances, the building is the most notable example of sustainability at work in downtown Detroit. Ernie and Diane plan to incorporate other energy efficient and sustainable practices including an extensive recycling program for building materials into their next building projects in the Sugar Hill district.

The G.R. N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

The centerpiece of the Sugar Hill Arts District is the G.R. N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, located at 52 East Forest. Built in an old automotive dealership, which required fixing and replacing its expansive pine wood roof and other parts of the once dilapidated building, George N'Namdi first established his art gallery in Detroit in 1981 and has since grown to open galleries in both Chicago and New York City. N'Namdi's art and exhibitions focus mostly on African American and modern abstract art, and his collections have been displayed in numerous major art institutions throughout the United States. He is known as one of America's foremost art dealers.

The vision for the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art is to create a space to display the work of the many renowned artists he collects, but also to provide a space for art exhibitions and other community events. George is very proud to be a part of the Sugar Hill development and the fact that he put the time an effort into preserving and redeveloping the historic building that the gallery occupies. The N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art will celebrate its grand opening on October 9th with events and entertainment through the night.

Groundwork laid

The evolution of the Sugar Hill district is a reflection of Detroit's comeback and the unique marriage of historic preservation with sustainability. While the ultimate vision for Sugar Hill will take time to come to fruition, the work of Ernie Zachary, Diane Van Buren, and George N'Namdi is an inspiration for future development in Midtown. Barriers remain, including finding sufficient additional financing for new projects as well as the challenge of updating City building codes that hinder the development of a truly walkable area. Yet their perseverance through Detroit’s worst days and their commitment to the city and its economic revitalization has earned them a chapter in the continuing saga of Detroit's rebirth.

Here's a video from Model D, produced by Tom Hendrickson, about Sugar Hill:

Geoff Young is an Executive Project Manager with the Wayne County Communications Team. Taylor Segue and Lisa Niscoromni, both development officers with EDGE, also contributed to this piece. Special thanks to Ernie Zachary, Diane Van Buren and George N'Namdi for the tour of Sugar Hill and the N'Namdi Gallery.

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